Over the past few years, a lot of chefs have started serving raw fish preparations called crudo, often referred to as Italian sashimi. Crudo is simply the Italian word for raw. Beyond that qualification, the rules are few. It is most commonly seen as fish or shellfish, while cruda — with an a — is the masculine word for meat (lamb, beef) prepared in a similar fashion.
With crudo, the quality of the fish is paramount. It is reserved for the most pristine fish, right out of the water. A piece of fish or shellfish should smell sweet and of the ocean. In most cases the meat should be very firm and have a translucent appearance. Unless you caught it yourself, procuring such fish is the biggest challenge (Mark Marhefka's community supported fishery is a good place to start). At FIG we don't force crudo onto the menu — we wait for only the sexiest fish.
A very sharp knife is the only tool you need. Some fish like tuna, wahoo, mackerel, and rudderfish have more tender muscle tissue and can be cut in large or small pieces. Grouper, snapper, triggerfish, and the like tend to have more tooth; they are generally sliced thin and against the grain so that they are more palatable. A good way to experiment is to cut the fish one piece at a time and taste the result. If you are happy with the texture and the mouth feel, then you can proceed. If not, change the direction of your cuts and try again; you will eventually get it right. After that, add sea salt, a touch of really good olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, and there you go — crudo.
The best versions are the most simple, highlighting the quality of the fish. Once you get comfortable, you can spruce them up with accents like thinly sliced fennel, celery, or shallots. You can change the acid from lemon to another citrus or vinegar and add snipped herbs. But step cautiously, being ham-fisted with the garniture is considered blasphemous.
I have to give credit to Ken Vedrinski of Trattoria Lucca for bringing crudo to Charleston. It made its debut at his first restaurant Sienna years before Lucca and quickly became a must-have when dining there. He has always had a knack for threading the needle and delivering complex, balanced, and intelligent efforts that are flat-out delicious. I have known Ken for a long time, and yet he still surprises me with his light and playful interpretations. He knows how to respect both the texture and flavor of the fish while adding just the right amount of foil in the form of acid or crunch to lift it to greater heights.
Ken and I enjoy talking shop regularly, but for the purpose of this article I decided to ask him the secret to great crudo. "First, the fish has to be worthy," he says. "Then find the right olive oil, good salt, maybe preserved lemon ... Restraint goes a long way. ... The result should seem effortless, just let the fish speak for itself."
Ken's message is that crudo is simple, but the inflection in his voice when he talks about his favorite fish — black bass and flounder, which "is only good if it was gigged" — tells of an intrinsic connection to seafood. The result of this connection is signature Vedrinski cooking. While anyone can prepare crudo, it takes a talent like Ken's to inspire a city full of chefs to put it on their menus.